Control - Rotovation (underwater rototilling)


A rotovator is a barge-mounted rototilling machine that lowers a tiller head about eight to ten inches into the sediment to dislodge milfoil root crowns. The mechanical agitation produced by the tiller blades dislodges the root crowns from the sediment and the buoyant root masses float to the water surface. Since the entire plant is removed, plant biomass remains reduced in the treatment area throughout the growing season and often longer. Rotovation often provides two full seasons of control (Gibbons et. al, 1987). Unlike harvesters, rotovators do not have the capability to collect the plants.

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Water bodies suitable for rotovation programs:

Rotovation is a way to mechanically remove milfoil to provide open areas of water for recreational activities and navigation. Waterbodies suitable for rotovation include larger lakes or rivers with widespread, well-established milfoil populations where milfoil eradication is not an option. Since on-going rotovation programs are very expensive, having a large lake population or a motivated local government to share these costs is crucial. Because rotovation is expensive and multiple permits are needed, rotovation has not become a wide-spread milfoil control activity in Washington or elsewhere in the United States.

Special considerations:

Rotovation is not recommended in water bodies with early infestations of milfoil since fragments are created and rotovation may increase the spread of milfoil throughout the waterbody. Because rotovation creates turbidity, rotovation may not be appropriate in salmon-bearing waters, although sometimes Fish and Wildlife staff are able to provide windows of time when rotovation activities will have the least impact on fish. Because rotovation and the resultant turbidity may impact the entire waterbody, it should be conducted under the direction of an integrated aquatic vegetation management plan. Rotovation requires a Hydraulic Project Approval from Fish and Wildlife.

Factors to consider when designing a rotovation program include:

A waterbody committee and/or local government staff identifies acreages and areas to be rotovated. Priorities may be determined by who funds the program. A local government will be more interested in rotovating public areas, whereas local residents may be interested in rotovating areas in front their homes. However, generally high use areas such as public parks, community access points, navigation channels, public boat launches, and water ski lanes receive priority. Sometimes rotovators can be used to create fishing lanes in dense beds of milfoil to provide better fishing access to anglers.

Prior to rotovation, machinery launch sites (a paved ramp with deep water is best) need to be identified. Since rotovators do not collect plants as they work, a method for removing plants from the water should be developed. This may involve having a harvesting machine follow behind the rotovator to collect plants or hiring people to rake plants off beaches. When Pend Oreille County rotovates milfoil in the Pend Oreille River, they begin at the milfoil bed furthest upstream. The plants are then carried downstream and get caught up on the remaining dense milfoil beds. Their rotovator also has a clam rake attachment that can be used to pick up the plants and place them on-shore. This removal technique is acceptable on the Pend Oreille because there are many uninhabited shoreline areas. This would not be suitable in well-populated bodies of water.

Description of a rotovation project:

During a rotovation project, the rotovator tilling head is lowered into the sediment and power is applied. The rotating head churns into the sediment dislodging milfoil root crowns and plants, and a plume of sediments. The rotovated plants eventually sink or wash up on shore and the sediments gradually settle from the water. Canadian plant managers have recorded milfoil stem density and root crown reductions of better than 99 percent after rotovation test trials (British Columbia Ministry of Environment memo dated 1991). Where repeated treatments have occurred at the same site over several consecutive years, treatment intervals may extend longer than two years (Gibbons, et. al, 1987).

If rotovation services are contracted, bid documents and a contract need to be prepared, but there are few, if any, contractors offering these services. In a few waterbodies such as in the Pend Oreille River, rotovation may be performed year-round. In most water bodies, timing is dependent on fish windows. Washington Fish and Wildlife does not want rotovation activities to take place when fish are spawning or juvenile salmon are migrating through the waterbody.

For efficacy of milfoil removal, it’s best to begin operations in early spring and resume again in the fall. Rotovation is less effective in the summer when the long milfoil plants wrap around the rotovating head, slowing down the operation. If rotovation is done during the summer, it is more efficient to cut or harvest the plants beforehand. Weather creates winter rotovation delays, although it is possible to rotovate throughout the winter months (as long as the waterbody doesn’t freeze). Delays in the rotovation schedule can result from high winds, thunderstorms, freezing water, and mechanical failure. There is a lot of maintenance and some down time on machinery working on the water.

Complaints about rotovation include increased plant fragments washing up along shorelines, broken water intakes, and homeowners perceiving that their neighbor’s property was rotovated sooner or more thoroughly than their own property. It is important to establish some clear guidelines and policies to help make decisions and to settle disputes.

General impacts of rotovation:

Rotovators stir sediments into the water column. In addition to the sediments, buried toxic materials and/or nutrients may be released. Generally turbidity is short-term and the water returns to normal within 24 hours, but the length of time that sediments remain suspended depends on sediment type. Plants and root crowns are uprooted from the sediment and unless a plant removal plan is in place, these plants will either sink or be washed on shore. Rotovation appears to stimulate the growth of native aquatic plants. Whether this is due to the removal of milfoil, the action of the rotovator stimulating seed or propagule germination, or a combination of these factors is not known. Rotovators are also large machines with hydraulic systems and fuel that occasionally leaks or is spilled. The operator should have a spill plan and containment equipment on board for emergency use.

In 1987, Ecology conducted an evaluation of rotovation in Lake Osoyoos. This lake was chosen because it has a history of mining and agricultural use and therefore might represent a “worst case” scenario in terms of the potential for release of contaminants from sediment. The objectives of the study were to document effectiveness of rotovation by measuring changes in milfoil stem densities before and after treatment, and to assess impacts of rotovation on selected water quality parameters, benthic invertebrates, and the fisheries. Although the rotovator malfunctioned during the test (the hydraulic system driving the rototiller was not functioning properly), the results were consistent with data collected by the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment of sites rotovated by a fully operating rotovator. During the Lake Osoyoos rotovator test, rotovation appeared to have little impact on fish, water quality, or benthic invertebrates. However during this test, milfoil stem densities were not reduced to the extent that should have occurred had the machinery been operating properly. Although the results indicated only short-term impacts associated with rotovation, the test was faulty and it is difficult to draw firm conclusions. This study was not repeated using a fully functioning machine.


Gibbons, M.V., Gibbons, H.L., and Pine, R.E. 1987. An evaluation of a floating mechanical rototiller for Eurasian watermilfoil control. Department of Ecology. Publication Number 87-17.

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